What to watch for down-ballot

In switching from daily to weekly writing, I’ve concentrated on straightforward electoral assesments of congressional and gubernatorial races, but it goes without saying there are hundreds of other crucial elections playing out across the country. Some of them matter for federal politics (most directly by deciding which parties will control redistricting in each state), though many state-level races should also interest people nationally.

With two days to go before the election, all I have time for is a quick rundown of some of the most important down-ballot contests you should be looking at on Tuesday night. Or more realistically given how much we all have to keep track of that day, check on Wednesday.

Referenda

California’s Prop 19 (legalizing pot): This proposition has understandably been one of the highest-profile elections anywhere in the country, but its chances of passage have diminished through October as opponents of legalizing marijuana have ramped up their campaign and as the Obama Administration announced it would still enforce federal law. However, Many Democrats credit the proposition with making young voters interested in the election and thus helping Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown.

California’s Prop 23 (global warming): Heavily funded by energy corporations, this proposition would suspend implementation of California’s global warming law, which aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Undoubtedly one of the most important elections on the ballot this year.

California’s Prop 25 (budget): In recent years, the state has faced months-long delays in passing a budget due to the requirement that it be adopted by 2/3rds of the legislature. This proposition would repeal that requirement; it would also give Democrats more power to craft policies in the largest state in the country.

California’s Prop 20 and 27 (redistricting): These initiatives create a confusing situation, as they go head-to-head in trying to change California’s redistricting practices. The state recently created a citizen-commission to draw the legislative map. Proposition 20 would extend that commission’s authority to drawing the congressional map as well; Proposition 27 would entirely eliminate the commission, giving redistricting power entirely to the legislature.

Florida’s Amendment 5 and Amendment 6 (redistricting): Florida’s legislative and congressional maps are heavily gerrymandered for the GOP, which has left the party in firm command of the state legislature and of the House delegation. If passed, these two amendments would throw the redistricting process in the hands of an independent panel, which would dramatically alter the landscape of state and federal politics and almost certainly guarantee that Democrats pick-up a substantial number of seats in 2012. Polls have shown voters like the measures, but there’s a big catch: They need to receive 60% to pass, which is obviously a very tall order.

Statewide officials

New York’s Attorney General: New York’s two most recent Attorney Generals are Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, which goes to show just how important this position can be. Also, this Attorney General can target Wall Street, heightening the election’s very substantial stakes. That is especially the case this year, as Democrats are running a strong progressive, state Senator Eric Schneiderman - an ally of the Working Families Party who has a tense relationship with Cuomo. His victory would be a bright spot for the left in what is looking like a very rough night. Running against him is Staten Island DA Dan Donovan, who Republicans have been touting as a strong candidate. Getting Donovan elected would give the GOP a strong footing in state government - and finally provide them with a successful politician they can run in future Senate or Governor’s races. Polls show a tight race.

California’s Attorney General: Los Angeles’s Republican DA Steve Cooley has been the slight favorite throughout the election, but the state’s drift towards Democrats through October has brought San Francisco’s Democratic DA Kamala Harris back in contention. Two reasons non-Californians might care. First, Republicans have had difficulty winning any statewide elections over the past fifteen years, so electing one of their own at such a prominent position could help them build a bench for future races. (That said, Cooley will be 65 by 2012.) Second, the death penalty has been an important issue for this election, with Harris’s opposition to capital punishment creating an unusually high-profile divide.

Ohio’s Attorney General: Former Senator Mike DeWine, who lost his re-election race by double-digits in 2006, is attempting a political comeback by challenging incumbent Democrat Richard Cordray. Polls have shown a toss-up.

Ohio’s Secretary of State: The 2004 and 2008 presidential elections showed just how important it is to control this office. In 2004, Ken Blackwell purged thousands of voters off registration lists; in 2008, Jennifer Brunner’s rulings helped Democrats get more of an edge out of early voting. With Ohio set to once again play an important role in 2012, you can be sure we’ll hear a lot about either Republican state Senator Jon Husted or Democrat Maryellen O’Shaughnessy.

Florida’s Attorney General: A highly competitive race in one of the biggest state’s in the country deserves inclusion on the list, especially as there is a clear ideological contrast between the Sarah Palin-endorsed Pam Bondi and Democrat Dan Gelber, who has a liberal reputation.

Iowa’s Supreme Court Justices: Three of the state Supreme Court judges who legalized gay marriage are now up for retention, and conservatives have mounted a vigorous bid to oust all three. A new Des Moines Register poll shows that all three judges could indeed lose their job - though the die is far from cast.

Iowa’s Attorney General: I can think of no obvious national repercussions this race might have, but it remains interesting because a GOP win against 28-year incumbent Tom Miller would show just how brutal the Midwest has been for Democrats and because Brenna Findley (longtime chief of staff of Rep. Steve King, one of Congress’s most conservative Republicans) would be a very conservative force.

Massachusetts: Can Republicans win a statewide office in Massachusetts? They are mounting surprisingly strong campaigns for Auditor (Mary Connaughton just got the Boston Globe’s endorsement) and to some degree Treasurer (state Rep. Karyn Polito). With Scott Brown now sitting in the Senate and the GOP threatening to win several of the state’s House seats - an unthinkable development just a year ago - Massachusetts Republicans would continue gaining a footing in state government and make it harder for Democrats to return to their dominance.

Potpourri: There are more interesting races that I can hope to mention here - and also more that I am aware of.  Questions I have: Can Democrats defend any statewide offices in Kansas? (They were in a surprisingly strong position after the 2002 and 2006 midterms, but they are now in danger of being wiped-out now; keeping the Attorney General office is important for the party’s viability.) Can ethically embattled New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli survive? Will Democratic Attorney Generals Catherine Coriez-Masto and Gary King fall in Nevada and New Mexico, two states that have grown promising for Republicans?

State legislatures

If Republicans are heading towards historic congressional gains, the wave could be even more dramatic at the level of legislative races. Many chambers are threatening to fall in the GOP’s hands, and that doesn’t even get us to the many legislatures that are sure to stay in a party’s hand but where Republicans will either substantially reduce the gap or pad their lead. I will not attempt to point to particular districts that will determine the size of the Republican wave, but here are the chambers I’ll keep an eye on.

New York state Senate: After decades in GOP hand due to a gerrymandered map that was meant to protect Republicans in an increasingly hostile state, the state Senate finally fell in Democratic hands in 2008 - but only by a 32-30 margin. That led to chaotic events last summer, with two Democrats (who have since been defeated in primaries) briefly handing control of the chamber to Republicans. Now, the GOP looks like it has the slightest edge in its bid to regain the chamber - but there are many districts held by both parties in play, some of them open. If Democrats keep the chamber, they’ll draw a favorable House map, which would be especially important since the state is scheduled to lose a seat or two; and as importantly, they’ll be sure to alter the map of Senate districts, making it much tougher for the GOP to regain a majority. If Republicans do regain a majority, they’ll force yet another compromise that would give them a shot at controlling the chamber.

Ohio and Pennsylvania House: Democrats have the narrowest of majorities in both chambers, and given how rough both states look for the party it would be a surprise if they manage to keep them. The GOP is already in control of both states’ Senates and come January they might also control both Governor’s Mansions, which would give them full control of two of the largest states in the country. That’s obviously significant not only for redistricting purposes but also for state policies.

Michigan House and Senate: Once upon a time, Democrats had high hopes of capturing the state Senate, but it’s hard to see how they can accomplish that feat given the state’s brutal political dynamics. If anything, there is now talk of Democrats losing their 6367-43 majority in the state House, which would give the GOP full control of state government.

Texas House: Another chamber in which Democrats had hopes and were mounting an aggressive play to close the 77-73 gap. That would have been huge for redistricting purposes, as it would have allowed the party to block the GOP from drawing yet another gerrymandered map and allocate themselves the lion share of the state’s new districts. While Democratic chances to score gains have obviously deteriorated, it’s worth keeping an eye on what the balance of power will look like.

Iowa House and Senate: Democrats have comfortable majorities in both chambers, 32-18 in the Senate and 56-44 in the House. But the state has soured on Democrats more than most others. Also, Republican groups have devoted an unexpected amount of money to Iowa’s legislative races, heightening Democrats’ disadvantage. As a result, both chambers are now in play.  Besides granting the GOP full control of state government, it would also allow Republicans to make a move towards outlawing a gay marriage.

Wisconsin House and Senate: Few states are punishing Democrats are much as Wisconsin. Russ Feingold collapsed from seemingly safe to probable loser in a stunningly short time span, and the highly-touted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barret has never looked competitive in the gubernatorial race. As a resut, Democrats’ small 52-46 and 18-15 majorities look especially tenuous; the party should hope to at least defend one of the chambers to keep a say in state government.

New Hampshire House and Senate: In the 2006 wave, Democrats unexpectedly gained both chambers as voters massively flocked to their party. The GOP now has a good shot at pulling off the same feat, even though Democrats have what on paper looks like a comfortable majority in the state House (222-176).

Alabama House and Senate: Alabama could become the latest Southern state to complete its realignment. The Arkansas and West Virginia legislatures might still be solidly in Democratic hands, but the GOP’s steady gains in recent cycles look like they might finally climax in Democrats’ losing their century-old majorities.

Other chambers that could switch include the Indiana House and the Montana House. Democrats are favored to keep the Nevada Senate, the Oregon Senate and Washington’s House and Senate, but all bets are off if the GOP wave is even more dramatic than expected.

Let me know what important races I have not covered!

12 Responses to “What to watch for down-ballot”


  1. 1 Ron

    In Michigan, Democrats actually have a 67-43 majority in the Michigan House.

  2. 2 Yonah Freemark

    Another important issue up for vote: Massachusetts Question 2, which would repeal the state’s 40B law. The legislation allows developers who build affordable housing to bypass certain types of zoning and regulatory review in cities and towns in order to proceed on their projects more efficiently. The law, enacted in 1969, has resulted in the production of thousands of units of affordable units in suburbs that have mounted significant barriers to the production of affordable housing in their jurisdictions through exclusionary zoning and the like. Voting yes on Question 2 would make it much more difficult to build affordable housing in many places in the state.

  3. 3 Allison Smith

    FYI: Florida’s Amendments 5 & 6 do not create an independent panel or commission to redraw the district lines. They actually keep the process in the hands of the legislature, but create much-needed rules/guidelines for the legislature to follow during redistricting.

    I think these Amendments are a no-brainer (as does every single newspaper in the entire state).

    VOTE “YES” ON FL AMENDMENTS 5 & 6!

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